Roughly the size of California, there is an overwhelming amount of things to do and see in ‘the Land of the Rising Sun.’
I spent two months exploring as much as possible with my partner, and we left feeling like we hadn’t even scratched the surface. After experiencing the ultra clean everything, delicious eats and uber polite people, we knew we couldn’t stay away from Japan for long.
While most visitors hit the entertaining Robot Restaurant in Tokyo and gorgeous Arishiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto before catching a flight home, Japan has dozens of hidden gems just a few hours from the major hubs. So take a bullet train or short plane ride to any of these special spots and you won’t regret it.
Ride the Tobu Railway a few hours (don’t worry, there’s free wifi) from Tokyo to get to this charming historic town. For decades, diplomats and dignitaries have escaped the Tokyo heat to summer on Lake Chuzenki. The British Embassy Villa is an ideal place to stop for a spot of tea and a scone with carrot jam as tour boats loop around the picturesque lake.
Nikko is surrounded by nature, including several jaw-dropping waterfalls. Visit the powerful Kegon Falls and Ryuzu Falls in one trip. On your way, you’ll pass by the famous Shinkyo Bridge perfect for a fall photo shoot. Within walking distance of the bridge is the wildly ornate, bordering on baroque, Toshogu Shrine.
About two hours from Sapporo, located on Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost island), is Furano. Though it does get tourist traffic, the tiny town surrounded by mountains and lavender fields and is certainly worth a visit. Farm Tomita, the area’s most famous lavender park hits its peak from mid to late July where the rolling valley painted with rainbows of cockscomb and sunflowers dot the hills. We missed the lavender by just a few weeks but the fields full of color made up for it.
Furano and the neighboring town of Biei (45 minutes by train, but renting a car with your International Driver’s License is highly recommended,) are often visited together. Biei has a larger, and less-visited farm called Shikisai-no-oka, lush with bright blooms well into August. If you miss the summer months, both areas have phenomenal ski resorts to traverse come winter.
Osaka is like Tokyo’s grittier, more rebellious cousin. It’s also known as Japan’s kitchen. The city is famous for creating beloved dishes like kushikatsu, fried meats, veggies and cheese on stick and yakitori, rice flour balls filled with octopus (I could do without this one). I tried all of Osaka’s classic dishes on an night tour with Urban Adventures through the city’s alleyways.
Apart from eating all the food, which I highly recommended, the neighborhoods of Dontonburi and Shinsekai are full of picture-worthy spots like the famous Glico Man sign that that lights up like Times Square. But be prepared for crowds in these areas, I meant it when I said it was like Times Square.
This idyllic coastal town can be reached by train from Tokyo in under an hour. If you visit in the summer, you’ll find swaths of city dwellers escaping for a weekend getaway at Enoshima Beach. But year-round the city has historical monuments and ornate temples to visit, including the Great Buddha.
Once a major political center in Japan, it is now one of the most popular day trips from Tokyo. If you’ve seen enough temples for one day, check out quaint Komachi Dori Street for some local souvenirs. Surrounded by mountain, Kamakura is also a prime hiking destination with Mount Fuji views.
How to visit: Venture to Kamakura, as well as Tokyo and Kyoto, on Intrepid’s 7-day Japan Highlights trip.
A visit to this tiny town will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Narrow streets lined with wooden Edo period shops and merchants. Nestled in the Hida region of the Japanese Alps, is a uniquely preserved piece of Japanese history. Here you can visit the traditional Hida Folk Village and museums like the Matsuri no Mori.
After a night on a firm Japanese futon (these can take some getting used to) in a typical ryokan, explore the local food markets and sample fresh fruit and local snacks. Try one of several small sake breweries, cafes, art galleries and shops dotted throughout the town.
How to visit: Explore folk villages, markets and more in Takayama, in addition to Hiroshima, Tokyo and Kyoto on Intrepid’s 13-day Land of the Snow Monkeys trip.
1. Iriomote Island
This island in Okinawa is one of Japan’s best-kept secrets. Far from the mainland, basically in Taiwan’s backyard, is a stunning island with incredibly cool star-shaped sand. Most of the island is lush vegetation leading to some fantastic jungle treks, waterfalls all to yourself, and private white-sand beaches.
Most come here for world-class snorkeling or to relax on the Instagram-worthy beaches. Apart from hiking, nature lovers can try river kayaking and fishing. If you’re really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Iriomote Yamaneko, an endangered, nocturnal wildcat found only on the island.
How to visit: Explore gorgeous Iriomote, take a karate lesson and snorkel with manta rays on Intrepid’s NEW 9-day Okinawa Expedition.
Ready have the time of your life in this incredible country? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Japan.
(Ryokan image courtesy of Intrepid Travel. All other images courtesy of Katie Lockhart.)